British imperialism laid the groundwork and set the precedent for Israeli settler colonialism long before the official establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. British forces, acting in the name of the Zionist cause, early on created the conditions of apartheid and ethnic cleansing that persist today, even as U.S. imperialism has become the major supporter of Israel.
Britain gained a mandate over Palestine as one of the spoils of World War I. London’s support for the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine was made an official policy in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour spoke on behalf of the empire in a letter to the aristocrat and Zionist Walter Rothschild: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
Balfour then went on to proclaim support for the rights of Palestinians. However, unlike the stated commitment to Zionists, these claims of neutrality and fairness proved hollow.
While the British gave Zionists political and military support, the Palestinians faced dispossession and terror at the hands of British forces. In fact, prior to the formal establishment of the state of Israel, Britain was in many ways the primary force behind Zionist colonization.
While anti-Zionists and even people with modest criticisms of Israel are often accused of being anti-Semitic, the reality is that the British Empire’s initial interest in sponsoring and overseeing Zionist appropriation of Palestine was far from altruistic and often outright anti-Semitic.
While the imperialists often equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, many of Zionism’s earliest and most dogged supporters, including Balfour, were in fact anti-Semitic. However, they saw Zionist colonization as a foothold to assert the interests of the British Empire in the Middle East.
Using the most notoriously violent forces, which had been deployed to terrorize the people of Ireland, the British Empire subjected Palestinians to a similarly ruthless campaign of terror and dispossession. This was absolutely essential in Israeli colonization and ethnic cleansing. British forces, many of whom saw Arabs as subhuman, ruthlessly suppressed rebellions, killed thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, and intentionally cleared land for colonization.
During the 1936-1939 Arab rebellion against British rule, many Palestinians were subjected to detention without charge or trial in the Sarafand concentration camp and other labor camps. The gross sense of injustice drove many detainees to go on hunger strike.
Between the two world wars, Zionist forces, continuing the practice of ethnic cleansing, received material support from the British; many worked for British police forces. Zionist employers and trade unions also contributed to the inhumane treatment of Palestinians via discrimination in employment and gross disparities in wages.
Contrary to the claim by one of Britain’s high commissioners for Palestine that rebellions were an irrational or intolerant reaction to “different manners and customs” of the colonizers, Palestinian revolt was and is based in the oppressive conditions of settler colonialism imposed by the British and Zionists.
On April 9, 1948, news of a massacre by Zionist paramilitary forces of men, women and children in the village of Deir Yassin quickly spread, causing thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes as Zionist troops advanced elsewhere. This grisly event became known as the Nakba (Catastrophe).
Even before the Nakba and the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinians had already become acquainted with settler colonialism and saw the rate of expulsion rise dramatically.
Contrary to the ahistorical imperialist narrative that blames the ongoing conflict on supposedly anti-Semitic Palestinians, the Nakba and the resulting establishment of the Israeli state marked an intensification of oppression, disenfranchisement and dispossession.
As the support of the most reactionary segments of the U.S. population for Israel would suggest, the link between Zionism and other racist ideologies persists. One need look no further than the ceremony at the recently opened U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, where Robert Jeffress — an Evangelical pastor who has made many inflammatory statements, including the claim that Jewish people are destined to go to hell — addressed a group of Zionists. Jeffress and other reactionaries celebrated the occasion as Israeli forces were murdering Palestinians in Gaza.
Just as it had been for British imperialism, Israel is today an indispensable asset for U.S. imperialism in the region. While Britain has a less active role since relinquishing control to the Israelis, the U.S. has in many respects taken up the mantle to the benefit of Britain and other Western imperialists. As the recent attack on Syria by the U.S., Britain and France illustrates, the West’s ruling elite are united in their continued plunder of the region. Israel remains central in subjecting the resource-rich region to the international capitalist order.
Last November, the British ruling class celebrated 100 years since the Balfour Declaration with a gala dinner for Benjamin Netanyahu. Prime Minister Theresa May told him Britain was “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel.” (The Guardian, Nov. 2, 1917) No amount of rebranding will absolve Britain’s ruling elite from their abhorrent role in the Middle East.
From the slaughter and expulsion of thousands of Palestinians to Prince Harry boasting about killing people in Afghanistan, Britain remains stubbornly culpable for the widespread anti-Arab sentiment and the ongoing process of ethnic cleansing it informs.
For a fuller understanding of Britain’s involvement, readers can check out journalist David Cronin’s book, “Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel,” and also visit electronicintifada.net, for which Cronin is an associate editor and regular contributor.